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Secret of Kells is animated magic, while Date Night is deadly unfunny

by Mark Burger

Producer/director/story writer Tomm Moore makes an auspicious feature debut with The Secret of Kells (opening this Friday), an animated fantasy that scored a surprise Oscar nomination as Best Animated Feature earlier this year.

That the film’s competition in that category included such higher-profile efforts as The Princess and the Frog, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline and Up (which won), there’s a distinct and winning air of the underdog in this Irish-produced effort. This is a little film that could — and did.’­

The story focuses on the fabled Book of Kells, a 12 th century volume transcribed by Celtic monks, and of the young orphan Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), whose curiosity and imagination become pivotal to the creation of the Book, which it is said “will turn darkness into light.”

While those around him, chief among them his uncle the Abbot (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), prepare for the inevitable onslaught of Viking marauders, Brendan embarks on his own journey — one that takes him deep into to the magical forests surrounding the abbey where he has spent his entire life, and deep into a world of magic, mysticism and mystery.

The animation in The Secret of Kells takes a little getting used to, particularly for those accustomed to the generally slick animated features being made by the major Hollywood studios, but there’s a distinctive charm to it that grows more and more appealing as the narrative progresses. The climactic battle sequence is immensely impressive, but so too are the quieter, more poetic moments dreamed up by Moore and screenwriter Fabrice Ziolkowski, particularly a lovely musical sequence in which Brendan encounters the mischievous but benevolent forest sprite Aisling (voiced by Christen Mooney), who becomes an indispensable ally in his quest.

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In the avoidable Date Night, Steve Carell and Tina Fey portray a suburban New Jersey couple whose title excursion into New York City goes awry.

How and why it goes awry is not of any major (or even minor) concern. What is the film’s principal concern is that it’s singularly unable to utilize the talents on hand in any constructive manner. It’s as if the filmmakers figured that, since they’ve got Carell and Fey, the laughs would simply follow in quick succession.

Alas, this is not the case. For although the two leads try to bring some life to the party, the Josh Klausner screenplay (with more than a few nods to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest), is simply too flimsy, and directed, perhaps appropriately, in disposable fashion by the reliably disposable Shawn Levy, whose earlier films include Just Married (2003) and the unnecessary remakes of Cheaper by the Dozen (also ’03) and The Pink Panther (2004).

Married with children, Phil and Claire Foster decide to hit the town for a little fun. First stop: A ritzy restaurant where they surreptitiously take the dinner reservations of the Triplehorns.

A bad case of mistaken identity follows, as Phil and Claire are subsequently pursued through the city by corrupt cops, criminals and assorted unpleasant types. Needless to say, they manage to take the upper hand before the fade-out, which takes a long 85 minutes to arrive at. Along the way, of course, they reignite their love for each other.

As a film, however, Date Night never ignites, much less reignites. In addition to Carell and Fey, the parade of familiar faces on hand includes a shirtless Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson, Mark Ruffalo, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Jimi Simpson, Common, Leighton Meester, Kristin Wiig, William Fichtner and an unbilled Ray Liotta. On and off they come and go, none of them making much of an impression — although, to be fair, these are hardly circumstances conducive to making one.

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